[PATAGONIA, CHILE] — Going to Torres del Paine in Patagonia was always one of my lifelong goals, well, at least for the last 25 years. Then, I finally bit the bullet and decided to go, paired with a visit to the Atacama Desert in the northern half of Chile — the driest place on the planet (you can see that part of the trip here).
[Note: This is an updated post of my previous posts from a fantastic trip I took in 2013. I consolidated several posts into one comprehensive one, with better photography, better maps and descriptions.]
Patagonia is a region that actually straddles both Chile and Argentina at the very tip of South America and I could never figure it out or decide which side to go to. I finally just picked Chile and didn’t get a chance to see the Argentina side, which I’m saving for my next visit.
Where is it? Look at a map, find South America, then take a right and go aallll the way to the bottom. It’s there. Patagonia. End of the earth.
I just went to Torres del Paine national park, but there are several sub-regions to go to… and new tens of millions acre parks recently opened all across Patagonia, leaving more to explore in the future.
Look at a map, find South America, then take a left and go aallll the way to the bottom. It’s there. Patagonia. End of the earth.
To get there, you fly to Santiago then take another 3 1/2 hour flight down to eerie, end-of-the-world feeling Punta Arenas — a stunning flight straight over the snow-capped Andes, get a window seat — to the bottom of the continent, right above Tierra del Fuego, the place we all studied in grade school.
You literally do feel like you’re at the end of the earth there, what I imagine far northern Alaska to be. The place where explorers load up on provisions and set off in boats into the great unknown. From Punta, the hotel van picks you up for the five and a half hour drive back north — yes five and and a half hours — through endless Sheep Country, nothing but sheep, dotting along the coast and inland vast flat savannas until you take a sharp right and climb up to the high plains before Torres del Paine national park.
Being south of the equator, the seasons are switched, so our Winter is their Summer. Chile is thousands of miles long but thin, so you’re never far from the ocean. Just by luck, not by plan, I picked to travel in the Springtime, which was at the end of November there, which many people say is the best time of year to go. The high altitude of Torres del Paine has its own microclimate, so you can actually go there in all but a few months a year.
Of course, I didn’t believe that, so when I arrived in Punta Arenas and it was windy and bone-chilling cold, I panicked that I was under-provisioned and even bought extra down gear there in worry, wondering “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into? I’m gonna freeze.”
But when you get up to the park it was….SPRING! Warm. Flowers blooming, everything green.
The view of The Horns (Los Cuernos) from Lago Azul, the same views you see on a lot of guidebooks. It is jaw dropping. What’s eerie is that it all looks so calm, but the winds were gusting 50-70mph when I took this. If you stay at the Explora Patagonia lodge, this is your view, which I think is superior to the Tierra Patagonia hotel I stayed at. But the Explora has been there for 30 years, I liked the architecture and cheaper price of the Tierra.The wind, like everywhere in Patagonia, is ever-present and A Thing to Deal With. In some places, often a constant 100mph/hour. Everything you read says “bring windproof clothes”… I never heard of such a thing. But the place is built for it.
To get to Patagonia, go to South America and turn left and go aalllll the way down. Last house on the left. I meeeeaaan, Torres del Paine is literally at the bottom of the earth, or close to it. You fly into Punta Arenas at the very tip, overnight, then the hotel pics you up for the windy 5 1/2 drive north to the park. Lots of sheep.
Torres del Paine is the main national park on the Chile side of Patagonia. Huge mountains and glaciers soaring over turquoise blue lakes. It is unreal. I only saw a fraction of the park. Freaky blue lakes. Drop dead mountain ranges. Glaciers. Waterfalls. Hikes galore. Killer hotels. Animals you’ve never seen before. A lot of everything… except people. Google Map it and dive in. You can spend hours on your computer or days on the ground having the adventure of a lifetime.
Torres del Paine is the main national park in Chilean Patagonia, although there are a half dozen other parks to explore. But TdP is the Crown Jewel, famous around the world with some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen. So many amazing and jaw-dropping vistas you’ve ever seen.
You can backpack and camp in the park, many follow the famous and arduous W Circuit that last for multiple days, zigzagging throughout all the park’s highlights. There are also some budget hotels outside the park, some raffish, some nicer, but the coolest thing to do is stay at one of the three luxury adventure hotels scattered along the edges of the park.
There are three main luxury adventure hotels right on the edges of the park, the only ones — the Explora, the Tierra and the Awasi. Each has their own secluded section of the park, with uninterrupted views. I chose the Tierra, which had great reviews, a stunning design and was less expensive than the others. (However, still expensive.)
The lobby of the hotel is centered around this huge “adventure map”, the main guide hefe greets you and asks about your interests and desire for adventure. He then makes a number of suggestions to help plan out your stay. An easy day. A hard day. A spa day. They make it so easy to maximize your stay.
The Tierra hotel is all-inclusive — meals, booze, guides, transportation, all included no nickel and dime-ing you for what you want to do. If you want to sit in the lodge and just look out, the same price as going on two guided tours a day.
The lobby of the hotel is centered around this huge “adventure map”, the main guide hefe greets you and asks about your interests and desire for adventure. He then makes a number of suggestions to help plan out your stay.
They are great at guiding you to what you want to do, managing your time in the most efficient way to maximize your time here. Adjusting to what you want to do and se. Even suggesting some ALT plans that you can slip in if you’re up for it.
Tierra vans take you out and into the park, often with a driver and guide, usually set up to feed you in some remarkable place. Groups are small, whatever fits into a 13 passenger Dodge van, but are usually 6-8 people from the hotel. You meet some cool people, you also might get stuck with a couple of high maintenance ones, but you deal, enjoy it, then come back for a celebratory cocktail at the cool bar, recounting the day.
There are a dozen guides at Tierra, each with their own specialty. Our Aussie guide Chris on one hike was incredible. He didn’t just lead us up a trail like sheep, but stopped at the most invisible spots and opened our eyes to the incredible scenes before us.
Tours are broken out into half-day and full-day excursions, some are easy as a van taking small groups somewhere cool, setting up lunch or breakfast. Others are more strenuous. You pick what you want to do. What’s great is if you’re with a spouse or group, everyone can do their own thing, joining others in small group excursions, then meeting back to share stories in the restaurant at night. You don’t really eat anywhere else.
Here are my favorite hikes during my too-short stay. I wish I was there longer, but that leaves more to go back to.
Just when you’re having fun, along comes a waterfall….The first stop on this easy hike was to this picture-perfect setting, with roaring waterfalls and the Towers looming overhead. In person, they are really much closer feeling.
On my first day arriving at Tierra Patagonia, I was itching to get out and see this magical place. The adventure concierge suggested an easy first day excursion — all the guides are included in your all-inclusive stay — to a nearby lake with views of The Towers, the signature mountain range that dominates the views from the hotel.
Lots and lots of glory without much effort. It’s the perfect first day hike. I saw more wildlife on that trail than any other — herds of guanaco, rheas, ducks and birds of all shapes and sizes. And nobody, literally nobody, else on the trail.
It is awesome, especially towards sunset. You get to see the backside of the Towers, fronted by a stunning lake. Breathtaking…..but then again, the whole place is breathtaking….
Here’s a hike to base of the Torres trail, one of the top hikes in the park.
This one’s a commitment, but the end is worth it. Starts of pretty but gets ugly early. Pretty much five hours of Up. Caution: this is not a US National Forest Service trail, with meandering switchbacks that soften the incline — which I now have the utmost respect for. They don’t screw around in Chile, when the trail goes up, you go STRAIGHT UP. For hours.
The Base of the Torres — you see it in all the guidebooks, a crystal clear day with sharp views of all the Towers. But in reality, we were told by our guides that you see a view like this only 40% of the time, so pick a clear day. All that Up and not seeing these puppies up close and it would be ego-crushing. Save this hike for your last days after building up some stamina.
Yeah sure, I’m smiling. 20 minutes earlier, after an hour of slugging through the moraine and I was about to cry like a little girl.
The wind. You learn to love the wind. It is stupendous. I’ve never experienced such wind. You’re in a calm spot and go around the corner and it is the most intense thing you’ve ever experienced, whipping up froth and waterspray, whitecaps and fun from the surrounding lakes.
All of us where stopped dead-in-our-tracks — literally and figuratively — in amazement. It was 90-100mph winds this day, mostly just in some spots. Just lifting your leg while walking was hard; you have to plant your feet one foot at a time, like a robot, lest the wind windmill you around and off the trail.
Los Cuernos were something else in person. The air was so clear, the formation so unusual, you felt like it was a diorama that you could reach out and touch, but the invisible wind would pull you away. We spent a good amount of time sitting and staring. The rest taking a million pictures of the laughable leaning into the wind.
We could barely stand up here, holding onto rocks.
Here Torres del Paine is listed by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the Top 50 Most Beautiful Places on Earth.
Here’s a great NYTimes article from Ondine Cohane on Torres del Paine national park. And another great NYTimes article about the other parks in Chilean Patagonia. And another NYT article on roughing it a little more at Hosteria Pehoe.
This is just a fantastic roundup of all the higher end hotels in Patagonia, you really can see them all in nearly side by side. I love Tablet so much.
Here is the official website of the Torres del Paine national park.
— Last Visited December 2013; Post Updated January 2020 —
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